The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 14, 2013

Change drug crime laws, cost

Why it matters: When Judges lost sentencing power, incarceration rates and costs skyrocketed

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The announcement Monday from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that he would direct U.S. attorneys to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases wasn’t about going soft on crime. It’s a move that will let judges do their job, improve overall justice and go easier on taxpayers as well.

Holder directed 94 federal U.S. attorneys to no long impose the mandatory minimum sentences set nearly three decades ago. Those laws were imposed at a time of exploding drug crimes, particularly crack cocaine. Those get-tough on crime policies that were slam dunk political moves expanded the U.S. prison population by 800 percent when the population as a whole only grew by 30 percent, according to a report by The New York Times.

With that growth in the prison population came huge costs for building and maintaining prisons. It also tied the hands of judges and prosecutors who had no choice in sentencing. They ended up putting offenders who needed addiction help into a prison where they not only didn’t get help but in many cases became worse.

In fact, there is bipartisan support in Congress for changing the mandatory minimum sentencing laws even though Holder has authority to make changes in policy through U.S. attorneys.

Democrats and Republicans have proposed legislation giving judges more discretion in sentencing. The laws and Holder’s action will likely save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and put drug offenders in places where they can contribute to society instead of being a constant burden.

In fact, several states with conservative leaders have already taken aim at the mandatory sentencing laws. According to a report in The Washington Post, Kentucky will reduce its prison population by 3,000 over the next 10 years and save about $400 million in the process. The Kentucky program aims at leaving prison space for the most violent offenders while using community-based programs and alternatives for the drug offenders.

In Texas, drug treatment programs and changes to parole policies reduced the prison population by 5,000. A similar program in Arkansas reduced it by about 1,400.

Minnesota also stands to benefit from the new initiative as well as it applies to its federal prisons. The state system has long been employing what Holder is doing at the federal level and that has led Minnesota to have the second lowest incarceration rate in the country, only behind Maine.

Holder pointed out there were other reasons to remove the mandatory sentences. A recent federal report showed minorities and in particularly black men were imprisoned 20 percent longer than white men who committed similar crimes. The mandatory sentences disproportionately affect minority and poor communities in a result Holder called “shameful.”

Prosecutors and judges also lauded Holder’s announcement saying the mandatory laws often tied their hands in reaching plea agreements. That likely put thousands more cases through the courts that could have been settled without the time and expense a trial brings.

The explosion of crack cocaine three decades ago prompted a lot of the mandatory sentencing laws, but the crack cocaine explosion has long since dwindled. Violent crime is at a 40 year low.

It is time to make sensible policy and once again turn over to judges those decisions they are best able to make. A bipartisan effort to reform these laws and indeed eliminate some of them will keep our justice system strong, but will reduce the heavy burden of unwarranted prison time on low-level non-violent offenders and most importantly save taxpayers money.